Forget any preconceived notions you may have had of Eastern Bloc nation Poland, Krakow is remaking the mold. One of Poland’s oldest cities historically, it is one of Poland’s youngest culturally. Lively adolescents fill the streets, during the day weaving their way through Old Town Square or the trendy boutiques of Kazimierz and pouring in and out of restaurants, cafes, clubs and the like until the break of dawn. Along with being the bastion of hipster Poland, Krakow is the nation’s architectural gem, it’s Royal City status providing an impressive collection of Gothic and Renaissance. Krakow also has its’ share of historical draw- the city played a major role in World War II and remains today both a testament to the past and a hope for the future.
Ready to go? With the number of low-cost European airlines expanding and improved road connectivity, getting to Krakow has never been easier. John Paul II International Airport (IATA: KRK) is the nation’s second largest and located a short 12 kilometes away from Krakow in Balice. Though requiring a layover in one of many European cities, flights to Krakow from New York generally clock in at under $1000 USD. For those already on the European continent, EasyJet, Eurolot, Germanwings, Jet2 and Ryanair offer discounted flights in addition to those offered by most major European carriers. From the airport, Krakow can be reached by train (19 zł) or busses #292 or #208 during the day and #902 at night for 3.40 zł ( $1 ≈ 3.14 zł). Taxi stands are additionally located outside terminals TI and T2. The ride to the city is about 20 minutes and should run you under 70 zł during the day and now even accept credit cards.
If going overland is more your thing, Dworzec Główny PKP, or Krakow’s Central Train Station is connected to numerous cities across the continent. I for one, decided to make use of Krakow’s modern motorways on my recent trip, renting a car and undertaking the six hour drive from Prague with two friends. The international highways are new and maintained, with high speed limits and drivers that go far faster. The most time independent of all Krakow’s transportation options, driving is also perhaps the most scenic. The radio on the other hand, not quite the best. Also worth noting, while car companies will let you rent a car without a Polish license, it is illegal to drive in Poland without one. I learned this the hard way …
Once in, Krakow is easy to navigate on foot or by using the excellent and easy public transportation system (for routes, timetables and pricing click here).
Due to the burgeoning global popularity of the city, Krakow is at no shortage for accommodations. Through pricier than elsewhere in Poland, hotel options are still relatively cheap. The Greg & Tom chain of hostels offer cheap beds and quality service alongside a party atmosphere. The Aparthotel Spatz is a great midrange choice (I stayed here) in the heart of Kazimierz district. Clean, comfortable, friendly and with ample amenities I wholeheartedly recommend staying there when in Krakow. If you’re looking for a little more in terms of luxury, the Hotel Wentzl, located directly on Rynek Główny (Krakow’s main square), is about as good as Krakow gets.
Rynek Główny, Old Town and the surrounding area is likely where most visitors will spend a majority of their time in Krakow. Referred to in Polish as Stare Miasto, the district is the hub of historical Krakow. Rynek Główny is undoubtedly Old Town’s crown jewel. The square is the largest in Europe and plays host to important churches, impressive restaurants and lively bars. On nice days in the summer or for major events, the square is transformed into an outdoor entertainment zone. Sukiennice, located in the center of the square, was the city’s main trading hall since the 14th century. Originally a marketplace for local use, the traditional covered stalls of Rynek Główny have long been turned into expected souvenir stands. Nonetheless, the covered hall and square are still worth a visit.
Located a few meters from the Main Square, is Wawel Castle and Cathedral. Considered to be only second in beauty to the Hradcany Castle in Prague, the complex is the source of great symbolism and pride for the Polish people- Polish Royalty and many citizens of distinction are entombed in the Cathedral which was also the site of Polish coronation. The Wawel Hill complex is a must-see for visitors to Krakow and is open daily from 6 AM- 5 PM (though some exhibitions are closed on Monday so it is worth checking before visiting). Town Hall Tower, the Church of St. Anne, St. Mary’s Church and the Florian Gate are other worthwhile stops in the area.
After you’ve gotten in your historical Krakow quota, Old Town comes to the rescue with its’ various shops, restaurants and bars. Locals and tourists alike pack into the area for shopping and entertainment, making it a vibrant focus of the city and an area worth taking some time to explore.
One of the best restaurants in the area (and possibly in Krakow) to stop in for a bite is Miod Malina located around the corner from Rynek Główny. Always packed (reservations are a good idea), the rustic restaurants serves up classic Polish comfort food at reasonable prices. From our meal there, I can attest, the Polish cuisine is far better than the nation’s commie history would suggest.
Once dinner has been eaten and the sun goes down, Krakow turns into a nighthawk haven. The Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz is the center of night-time activity. After dark, the street stalls, restaurants and bars in the area overflow with locals. Under the street level establishments, Krakow’s famed underground clubs take over the subterranean space, the patrons ready to last the night in a vodka fueled party (the country is known for the alcohol which really is much better here).
While Old Town may be the place to go for a high-end Polish meal, Plac Nowy or the Central Square in Kazimierz is the go-to spot for late night snacking. Traditional sausage, pierogies and a Polish version of pizza or zapiekanka, are some of the most popular offerings. Though all looked good, when in doubt, my plan of action is always to go to the stand with the longest line. In Kazimierz, Endzior would be it (I later found out, Endzior is considered the best food stall in Krakow). The small space cranks out fresh zapiekanka to hordes of the young and hungry. Closer to a large baguette cut in half, then what we think of as pizza, the snack is nonetheless incredibly satisfying. Topping choices include varieties of pork, traditional cheese and a few veggie options. According to locals, the chive and cheese version is superior. Hovering at around $2USD per (enourmous) portion, you really can’t go wrong.
Kazimierz is not only the after dark food hub of Krakow, but is also home to a number of smaller institutions to Polish classics. Most notable of these may very well be Pierozki u Vincenta, a cosy space serving up perhaps Krakow’s best and most inventive pierogies (to read ALL about Pierozki u Vincenta and the Polish dumplings on offer check out last weeks post dedicated to the place).
Though Krakow may seem like other young, hip, European locales, one can not separate the city from its’ past. In 1939 German forces entered the country and Krakow. As a result of the invasion, many academics were murdered and historic monuments and landmarks destroyed. Krakow’s once thriving Jewish population centered in Kazimierz was eliminated almost over night. First sent to the walled zone known as the Krakow ghetto, Krakow’s Jewish population was later mostly sent to extermination camps like Auschwitz in nearby Oswiecim. Today, the mark of World War II on Krakow is undeniable. Many tourist sites around the city serve as a reminder of the atrocities that once took place there. Oskar Schindler’s now famous enamel factory is one such place. Known as Emalia during the time of German occupation, Oskar Schindler and his manufacturing plant saved the lives of over 1000 Krakow Jews. Today, the factory is a museum, documenting a dark spot on Krakow history and the man that sought to make it a little brighter. Open on Mondays from 10 AM- 2 PM (4 PM in the summer months) with free admission and 10 AM- 6 PM ( 8 in the summer) Tues- Sunday for just 17 zł, there is no reason not to visit.
If not to remember Krakow’s history, the walk over the Vistula River to Podgórze where the factory is located is worth it alone. Along the way, local markets selling traditional Polish delicacies and crafts can be found as well as charming and quintessentially European pedestrian bridges. On the outskirts of Krakow’s “main” areas, the walk is a peak into Krakow life for Krakow’s locals and the neighborhoods which they call home.
Another aspect of local culture I was lucky to participate in was the generally European love of football, a game known to Americans as soccer. My visit to Krakow this summer happened to coincide with the UEFFA Euro 2012, co-hosted by the Ukraine, and you guessed it, Poland. Held every four years, the Euro Cup is generally an exciting time to be in Europe as the whole continent explodes with excitement and national pride. No where perhaps are these feelings as strong as in the host nation, who is thrust into a global center stage. Every bar and restaurant during the games has non stop action on their TV’s, often upping the number of screens to meet crowd demand. Krakow was undoubtedly brimming with football enthusiasm and the excitement, simply infectious.
The lasting impression of Krakow is that the city is ALIVE. The entire city population is warm and welcoming and the city pulses to a quintessentially vibrant Polish beat. Elders point visitors in the right direction, young hipsters tell those who want to know where to go and everyone seems to mix and mingle on the city’s charming streets. Rising from war torn, Communist ashes, Krakow is the shining star in Poland’s future and to latest hot spot on the in-the-know European city-break circuit. Get there now if you can, before the secret is out.